As the category of this post indicates, this is another somewhat embryonic idea I’ve been batting around. Generally, I look for the ending of a campaign to be heroic. Most of my campaigns are fairly adventurey and that leads to some kind of confrontation with some kind of villain and, in the end, the PCs “win” in some sense. They vanquish an evil or whatever; they upset the status quo. That is, I’d say, also probably the most common ending in adventure fiction, as well. The Evil Empire is defeated, the Federation is saved from the Borg, The One Ring is destroyed, Buttercup is rescued and Prince Humperdinck disgraced. You get the idea.
However, there is a class of fiction that doesn’t end that way. In the end, the protagonists aren’t heros to the masses and probably haven’t even upset the status quo on a temporary basis, let alone a permanent one. In fact, the victory seems to be that the events of the story didn’t kill them (or didn’t kill all of them). In the last few scenes, they all sort of look at each other and say, “Phew! Well, I’m certainly glad that’s over.” They still ride off into the sunset, but only to go back to what they were doing before, more or less. The ending of the pilot episode of Firefly has this feel. To a certain extent, the ending of (at least the most recent remake of) 3:10 to Yuma is like this, too, though with a high death toll. The ending of a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction is like this; The Road or The Postman (not the movie). A lot of horror movies fall into this category as well.
So what I’m wondering about is whether this kind of ending would play well in a campaign. On the one hand, I have always personally liked this feel. It makes for a smaller scope story, but that’s OK to me and isn’t common enough. I think, though, that it could potentially be a bit of a let down for the players. Or too easy to make it not feel enough like an ending to the story and, so, feel like the campaign just sort of stopped for no reason.
Take a post-apocalyptic setting, for instance. The PCs are a group of people scratching out an existence 15 years after The Day near your home town, say. They’ll fight some motorcycle bandits in football-pads-with-spikes. They’ll explore some ruined sky scrapers, that kind of thing. There’s a bit of an impulse, for me, to have the plot end up being about the apocalypse. Since it’s so central to the setting, it ends up feeling like the plot should involve it. So do the PCs learn what happened and how? Do they learn how to undo it, or prevent it from happening again? Suddenly, I feel like it’s turning into a super hero game.
On the other hand, if the PCs don’t solve the apocalypse, will the players feel like whatever ending (saving their little junk town from bikerbarians, say) is too small and wonder what knocked over all the sky scrapers and killed off 95% of the population? Will they be left unsatisfied that their PC, who was doing heroic things yesterday, is going to go back to rooting through the ruins of Walmart for tools they can adapt to farming in the hopes of getting something to grow in the bleached soil?
In fact, this brings up another interesting angle: Genre. Is the small ending a vital component of certain genres (horror, disaster, and western)? Maybe the reason I feel like undoing the apocalypse feels like a supers game is because the small ending is required for post-apocalyptic stories. Similarly, if I tried to have a story in another genre with a small ending, would it fall flat? Can space opera or action stories have these kinds of endings without feeling like they’re really a western (or whatever)?
What do you think about fiction that uses this device? Would you enjoy playing in a campaign that ended thus? Have you done so? Or run one? Can you think of any off-genre examples, or maybe genre I missed? Let us know in the comments.